Al-Qaeda in Algeria | Yassin Temlali
Al-Qaeda in Algeria Print
Yassin Temlali   
Hamida Layachi isn’t only the publisher of the Arabic daily Jazair News, published in Algiers; he’s also one of the preeminent experts on Algerian Islamist movements. In the early 90s, he published Les islamistes entre la politique et les balles (“The Islamists between Bullets and Politics”)a book in which he explores the temptation violence holds for Islamists. His next book, a study of “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” will be published soon.

In this extensive interview, Hamida Layachi offers Babelmed an analysis informed as much by the process that led the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) to declare allegiance to al-Qaeda, as it is by the realities of armed Islamism today and the reasons for its rapid spread.

In what context did the GSPC become “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”?

The national reconciliation policy had a marked effect on the GSPC. In 2000, implementation of the Law of Civil Harmony resulted in the surrender of thousands of terrorists, including many from the ranks of the GSPC. The law coincided with a number of fatwas (religious rulings) from Muslim ulemmas—like those of the Saudi scholar [Muhammad Ben Ahmad] al-Uthaimin—which are considered doctrinal references for the Salafists and which called into question the religious legal foundation for the “jihad” in Algeria. These fatwas convinced whole battalions of the GSPC to lay down their arms. The most significant of these battalions is “Katibat al-Ghuraba,” the “Foreigners’ Battalion”, which operated around Boumerdès, near Algiers.

Once the Law of Civil Harmony’s time limit for the surrender of armed elements had expired, the authorities launched “Sayf al-Hajaj,” an anti-terrorist operation that limited the activities of the GSPC, particularly in Kabylia, which was one of its fiefdoms. It also had a large impact on the GSPC’s logistical support networks. And a significant number of GSPC members were forced to leave Kabylia and go to other parts of the country.

When the national reconciliation policy was being put in place in 2000, Hassan Hattab, then leader of the GSPC, seemed to hesitate between continuing armed struggle or negotiating surrender. His hesitation weakened his position in the organization, which for a while was rocked by a power struggle among his would-be successors. Factions began to form within the GSPC, including that of the “non-commissioned officers,” army deserters like Okasha, Abderezzak al-Para and others who led the GSPC’s militant wing.

The deserters couldn’t benefit from the national reconciliation policy. They’d acquired a lot of autonomy in the southern and eastern regions without coming into conflict with Hassan Hattab, but by doing so they’d undoubtedly weakened the GSPC’s structure and degree of centralization. When the GSPC found itself in a strategic impasse, these men turned to attacks on foreigners with the support of an important leader, Mokhtar ben Mokhtar, the head of the “Sahara zone.” This was how they planned the kidnap of the European tourists in the desert in 2003. Their strategy didn’t pay off: Abderrezak al-Para, for example, was arrested as a result of the kidnapping. His arrest weakened the organization in the south of Algeria and, as a result, at the national level.

The GSPC had also lost members: in 2003–2004, its operatives numbered between 1,000 (according to official sources) and 6,000 (according to its own figures). One of its important military leaders, al-Para, was in detention; the international siege against its networks was getting tighter; its propaganda cells in Europe (in Spain, for example) were dismantled. Reorganizing had become an urgent priority under these conditions. Hassan Hattab was removed from power. Nabil Sahrawi succeeded him, but was killed just a few months later, in June 2004.

What role did the occupation of Iraq play in this process that led from GSPC to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

The wars in Afghanistan and, especially, in Iraq were like oxygen for the GSPC, from whose ranks Droukdel, the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had begun to emerge. Droukdel belonged to a group operating in the Mitidja region south of Algiers. He had joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA, predecessor of the GSPC) in 1996. He began to restructure the GSPC and took command after the death of Nabil Sahrawi. He surrounded himself with people from his region. He succeeded in rallying groups that had belonged to the GIA, particularly in the centre and west of the country. He maintained Kabylia as the “command zone” and moved people and groups there from other regions as necessary.

The GSPC came into closer contact with al-Qaeda when the Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in Baghdad. After having kidnapped the diplomats, al-Qaeda’s Iraq cell consulted the GSPC on what should be done with them, and the GSPC okayed their execution.

The contacts with al-Qaeda were made primarily through the Egyptian branch of al-Qaeda, which, in the mid-90s, had tried to enlist the GIA. This attempt had failed at the time because Djamel Zitouni, then leader of the GIA, had had al-Qaeda’s emissaries killed. This execution created a real legal-religious storm within the GIA. Droukdel, for example, the current leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, opposed it. The closer contact that followed the assassination of the Algerian diplomats in Iraq inevitably led to the GSPC’s allegiance to al-Qaeda.

What did the GSPC have to gain by joining the ranks of al-Qaeda?

Al-Qaeda needed what one might call “authorized agents” in North Africa. The GSPC had the profile it needed: it had been fighting a real guerrilla war for years, it was relatively well armed, and it was solidly planted in impregnable strongholds.

Droukdel, who was basically an unknown, could become, thanks to the al-Qaeda label, a big man within the structure of this organization. Also, attacks staged by his organization could have an international impact thanks to Arab mass media like Al Jazeera and so on. This is what happened. As a result of its allegiance to al-Qaeda, the old GSPC became widely known and its operations became topics of conversation around the world. The relationship also jump-started GSPC’s recruitment, which had been stagnating in the wake of security forces operations and the national reconciliation policy. Linking itself to an organization that was fighting the Americans gave new credibility to the old GSPC in the eyes of potential recruits. And on top of the propaganda of local recruiters, recruitment was now benefiting from the media impact of militant strikes reported by the major news media. It’s undeniable that the link to al-Qaeda brought the ex-GSPC into the limelight in media across the Arab world, America and Europe.

Why the name “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” when this organization seems to be essentially Algerian?

By giving itself a name like this, the GSPC was trying to take advantage of a particular dynamic: that of setting up a regional, North African armed group. Also, al-Qaeda had a regional structure: that of the Mashreq, of the Middle East. It was therefore logical for it to work on building a regional structure in the Maghreb.

Has al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had an impact in Tunisia and Morocco? Are the groups that have been dismantled in these countries linked to it?
This organization does have Tunisian and Moroccan fighters, who came to Algeria essentially to receive military training, but it remains an essentially Algerian group. Its ties to Moroccan or Tunisian groups are much like those that connect it to the international al-Qaeda: they’re all fighting under the same banner, but each retains its operational freedom. One might say that the role of the “Maghrebi al-Qaeda,” for Morocco and Tunisia, is that of organizing the jihadist propaganda and defining the broad lines of jihad in North Africa. In other words, we cannot confirm that jihadist groups in Morocco, for example, are taking their orders from Algeria. We see an example of this kind of functioning if we look at the GIA in the early 90s: many groups were active under the GIA ‘label’ without actually receiving orders from its leadership or being structurally linked to it.

It’s also important to remember that in this kind of sphere of influence, it’s the weakest group that puts itself under the leadership of the strongest, if only symbolically. And the Tunisian or Moroccan jihadist groups are weak in comparison with the ex-GSPC.

What are the doctrinal references of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, compared to its predecessor the GSPC, and to the GIA?
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb defines itself as Sunni and Salafist. So does the GIA. But although, in 1997 and 1998, the GIA massacred civilians—under the pretext that they weren’t taking part in the struggle against those in power, or were collaborating with them—it never integrated, at the doctrinal level, the declaration of civilians to be apostates (“al-takfir”) in its “theology of jihad.”

The tendency towards the practice of collective massacre gained momentum after the passing of two fatwas, one from an imam called Abu Qatada sanctioning “the assassination of the women and children of the taghout” [the representatives of the “Tyrant,” or in other words, the supporters of the regime: police, gendarmes, etc. NDR]. On the ground, this fatwa provided religious justification for the GIA to assassinate not only the families of the police and gendarmes, but any civilian who didn’t take part in “its” jihad. But again, the GIA never formally adopted the doctrine of “al-takfir.” The groups that would later make up the GSPC left the GIA in 1998 saying, “We belong to the original GIA; we believe that its conduct towards civilians [the collective massacres, NDR] is a deviation.” Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is born of the GSPC, is also opposed to the doctrine of “al-takfir.” It notes that it doesn’t put bombs in public places, and insists that any civilians who die as a result of one of its attacks on the army or the police die as martyrs, not as apostates.

The founder of the GSPC, Hassan Hattab, who is opposed to the group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda, recently gave himself up to authorities. Did his surrender prompt an exodus from the armed Islamist movement?

Hassan Hattab initiated contact with the authorities in 2005, before the GSPC pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. Droukdel’s group took advantage of this to remove him from power. Since then, Hassan Hattab has remained isolated along with a small group. In the end he laid down his arms, but his surrender didn’t prompt an exodus from the armed Islamist movement. He gave himself up with just 30 other combatants.

Can we say that the “priorities of jihad” have changed as a result of GSPC’s allegiance to al-Qaeda?

At the level of appearances, the priority of the “Maghrebi al-Qaeda” seems to be organizing attacks against Western interests. If this group wages war against the Western states within Algeria, it’s because it doesn’t have the military or logistical means to wage the war on “enemy territory,” in Europe or in the United States. Its networks in Europe are for the time being networks for propaganda and campaigning, not logistical or armed networks.

At another level, things seem a bit more complex. In the logic of the Maghrebi al-Qaeda, the attacks against Western interests will politically weaken the regime, and the political weakening of the regime means, for them, the weakening of the West’s influence in Algeria. At the same time, the attacks against security forces will weaken the credibility of the regime in the eyes of its Western allies and lead them to withdraw their support.

Is it accurate to say that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a real threat for Western interests in Algeria?
I worry that, to prove that it’s “serious” about its allegiance to al-Qaeda, the Maghrebi al-Qaeda will mount more attacks against Westerners living in Algeria.

The GIA also claimed it was part of a global jihadist movement. What’s the difference between the international pedigree of the GIA and that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
The Algerians are actually not very well represented in al-Qaeda’s international networks. When the GIA existed, the strongest international jihadist networks had many Algerian members. The GIA was doing everything, in those days, to transform Algeria into an international “hub for jihad” that would resemble the “Afghan hub” of the 80s. This coincided with the international jihadist movement’s desire to find this kind of centre. But the primary objective of the GIA remained the overthrow of the Algerian regime. The goal of the Maghrebi al-Qaeda isn’t just to overthrow the regime, but also to attack Western interests in North Africa.

You’ve said that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb isn’t well represented in the international Islamist networks, but that its goal isn’t limited to overthrowing the regime—it also wants to fight Western interests. Isn’t this a contradiction?
The Algerian context, when the GIA still existed, was characterized by the rise of political Islam, radicalized by the cancellation of the December 1991 legislative elections that had been won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Algeria could, from this point of view, be a “hub for jihad” in which the international jihadist movement would conduct a battle against an “impious regime”—an experience that would be reproduced elsewhere, in Egypt, in Syria . . .

The current context is different. Political Islam in Algeria isn’t as strong as it was before. Many of the members of the Maghrebi al-Qaeda—we’ll return to this—never experienced the rise to power of the FIS. Moreover, al-Qaeda’s strategy has itself changed: it no longer moves from national to international, but the reverse. This change takes into account the new Islamic context: the weakness of radical Islamists in Arab and Muslim countries.

The end of the Taliban regime lost al-Qaeda a safe haven. Al-Qaeda had to decentralize in order to face the “global war on terror” being fought by a number of states under the Euro-American flag. But at the same time, in the face of this global war being waged against it and preventing its networks from being able to function in a centralized way, it had to have a trans-national response, by giving its networks wide operational freedom to act against Western interests.

Recruiting networks for “combatants for the jihad in Iraq” are regularly dismantled in Algeria. Is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb organizing them?
The influence of the situation in Iraq on Algerian jihadist movements isn’t new. In 1990, the FIS became radicalized partly because of the “Kuwait war.” The Iraq situation had created a “jihadist situation” in Algeria, and some members of the FIS were very active in recruiting volunteers to fight the Americans in Iraq: one of them was Said Makhloufi, who would later become head of the jihadist group MEI [Islamic State Movement, NDR]. The situation in Iraq reinforced the position of extremists in the FIS which, was in any case quite radical. The idea of violent opposition to the regime was popularized within this circle.

Before the invasion of Iraq, so before 2003, the situation of global Islamism was marked, contrary to appearances, by a real weakness. The Afghanistan of the Taliban had fallen into the hands of the Americans. The Chechen jihad was at an impasse, and Bosnia was after “Arab combatants.” In Algeria, neither the FIS nor the armed movements had succeeded in gaining power. In Egypt, the jihadists were in a self-critical phase and revising their understanding of “jihad in the Muslim world.” In Saudi Arabia, a number of fatwas had been issued that once again called into question the religious legality of jihad against Muslim governments.

The occupation of Iraq made that country into exactly the kind of “jihad breeding ground” that jihadist networks had dreamt of. The young generation in Algeria today didn’t live through the ‘jihadist’ experience of the 90s, let alone the birth and downfall of the FIS. Their sympathy for the fight against the Americans in Iraq was a spontaneous sympathy. This battle excited a lot of young people who, without going through the Islamist networks, volunteered to fight the Americans. Some of them were killed in Iraq, others returned to Algeria. Among the latter, some joined the GSPC or became middlemen in recruiting other volunteers, a role they ultimately wound up playing in close collaboration with the GSPC. The Islamist networks in the prisons—those of ex-combatants from Afghanistan, for example—were also important in the recruitment of volunteers, who are often common criminals. After the GSPC pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, it became the only vehicle for the recruitment of volunteers to Iraq.

The press confirms that “reinforcing the ranks of insurgents in Iraq” is a subterfuge that helps al-Qaeda in the Maghreb attract its own recruits . . .
Al-Qaeda in Iraq asked the Maghrebi al-Qaeda not to send it any more combatants and said what they really needed were suicide bombers. Since then, the Algerian volunteers have been swelling the ranks of the North African organization. The ex-GSPC doesn’t tell this to the volunteers that pass through its networks. It welcomes them, but keeps them as part of its own forces. These youths think that by joining the GSPC, they’ll eventually be sent to Iraq. But really, they stay within the GSPC.

Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb is using suicide attacks more and more often. What’s the profile of the Algerian suicide bomber?

Apart from the media impact, the use of suicide attacks is a way to bring the methods of the Maghrebi al-Qaeda in line with those of the international al-Qaeda. The truth is, it wasn’t possible to recruit suicide bombers from among the relatively old fighters within the organization. They needed young people, new recruits.

A suicide bomber is young, often a practicing Muslim, but someone who hasn’t been inculcated in the structure of an Islamist organization. He comes from a poor area, rarely from the middle class. He’s usually younger than 20. He often lives in an unstable family environment (divorced parents, absent father, etc.). He could be, for example, the son of an armed Islamist who was killed in action. He hasn’t had a high level of education. He might be a juvenile delinquent or a common criminal who was recruited in prison. His religious knowledge is quite basic.

Since the death of Antar Zouabri, no one talks about the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria. What happened to it?
The GIA was already finished in Antar Zouabri’s lifetime. The collective massacres that he committed alienated him from the population and allowed the security services to isolate him politically. These massacres, as well as the purges he orchestrated within his own ranks—such as the one that the Islamists of the “Djaz’ara” (Mohamed Said, Abderrezad Redjam, etc.) were victims of—resulted in many of the international jihadist networks dropping him.

Before Antar Zouabri’s death, there had already been a few splits within the GIA, like those involving the “Houmat al-Daawa al-Salafia” [Defenders of Salafist Preaching (HDS), which is still active in the east-central region, NDR] and the Islamic League for Preaching and Combat (LIDD), which left the GIA in the mid-90s and wound up disarming under the Law of Civil Harmony. But the most significant split was that of the “Zone 2” elements (Kabylia), which became the GSPC in 1998 under Hassan Hattab. All these schisms were motivated by opposition to the strategy of collective massacres.

Today the GIA no longer exists. The fighters who stayed after these splits and purges were killed, surrendered or joined the HDS or the GSPC.

How do you explain, then, that the GSPC has such a small presence in the western region, where the GIA seemed to have a solid base?
Some GIA combatants from the western region joined the GSPC right at the beginning. But many of them joined the HDS. This group was really closer to al-Qaeda’s philosophy, but its small numbers kept it from forging closer ties with al-Qaeda or becoming its Algerian arm. A few months ago, it was in negotiations to become part of the Maghrebi al-Qaeda. These don’t seem to have concluded yet.

But ultimately the GSPC under the banner of al-Qaeda didn’t draw groups, rather isolated fighters who joined as individuals.

Some newspapers confirm that many of the “repenters” [Islamists who surrendered in the context of the national reconciliation policy, NDR] have gone back to armed groups. How much of this is true? It’s not completely untrue. You can’t say that it’s a widespread phenomenon, but at least 100 “repenters” took up arms again alongside the Maghrebi al-Qaeda after the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was promulgated in 2004.

Not all the promises of the national reconciliation policy were kept. Many of the “repenters” weren’t reintegrated into work. Some were harassed by security services, often because the surveillance orders against them weren’t rescinded after they gave themselves up.

Islamist experts are criticized for getting information from anonymous sources or for being satisfied with information they get from security services. How do you do your research and what are your sources?
My rules are simple: to collect narratives and testimonies and to have diverse sources.

I’ve been working on Islamist movements for a very long time, since well before the emergence of armed groups. Thanks to contacts with old members of these groups who’ve since disarmed, I manage to get information firsthand. For example, I owe my knowledge of the splits between the “Djaza’ra” and the GIA to direct contact with the people who were members or leaders of armed groups.

Through these kind of contacts, I’ve been able to access an important source: internal correspondence and audiotapes of meetings, some of which took place high up in the hierarchy. The tapes were a very important way for the various structures of armed groups to communicate with each other. That’s how the leaders’ speeches, the meeting reports, etc. were disseminated.

This material lets me independently verify the security information I get from the press or from security services. It’s allowed me to learn very precise things about this or that armed group, how it worked and what disagreements and schisms shook it. I also collect information from people who were part of the fight against armed Islamism, like the local police and so on. In small villages, where everybody knows everybody else, a policeman can help you find this or that Islamist leader or “repenter.”

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